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Amazon tests techie comedy 'Betas' in original programming push

By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When online retail giant Amazon decided to join Netflix and Hulu in the online original programming race, it didn't have to look further than its own tech backyard to find a world ripe for comedy.

"Betas," starring newcomers Joe Dinicol, Karan Soni and Charlie Saxton as dating app entrepreneurs, explores the hyper- ambition that vibrates among the inhabitants of Northern California's tech-savvy Bay Area.

Tech entrepreneurs, Dinicol says, "are the ones shaping how human beings interact, and certainly the idea of our show is that they're not the best at interacting socially so it's sort of a perfect storm of an environment to have."

The first three episodes will be available to stream starting on Friday and follow Amazon's first original program "Alpha House," a political satire about four Republican senators living together, which was rolled out last week.

Amazon clients from its premium category Amazon Prime had selected both "Betas" and "Alpha House" from a short list as pilots. That direct consumer feedback is exactly the type of information that Amazon has mined over the years to decide what people want to buy.

Like online streaming and DVD rental company Netflix, Amazon has decided it must move beyond being a distributor of shows made by others to producing top-drawer programming of its own. Netflix made big waves this year with its first original series, "House of Cards," a political drama that took on basic cable and premium cable networks and scored three Emmy wins.

Streaming video company Hulu, owned by the Walt Disney Co, 21st Century Fox and Comcast, has also been rolling out original programming, most recently comedy series "The Wrong Mans," co-produced by the BBC, which aired earlier this month.

"Betas" executive producer Michael Lehmann said he finds the landscape "exciting, it's the new Wild West, a new frontier of premium cable with AMC, Netflix, HBO."

For Ed Begley Jr., who plays "Betas" playboy dot-com billionaire George "Murch" Murchison, the tech industry has been "underserved in television," something that the series producers said they took note of in the early stages.

"It seemed very obvious to us that the world's out there and no one's done a show about it. When a world is new - this culture has just exploded recently - there's a feeling that you can't do it right when it's shown up, it almost feels too topical," said Michael London, another executive producer for the show.

"Now it feels like the culture is deep enough and established enough that we can watch versions on TV."

RATINGS UNDER WRAPS

After its release on November 15, "Alpha House" became Amazon's most-watched TV series over the weekend, the retail giant said in a statement. But Amazon, like Netflix, did not release any viewership ratings.

The comedy portrays four Republican U.S. senators cohabiting a Washington, D.C., house while facing various hurdles in an election year. It brings together the star power of actors John Goodman, Clark Johnson and Matt Malloy with the writing of political satirist Garry Trudeau.

Goodman plays gruff North Carolina lawmaker Gil John Biggs, whose plan to cruise along until retirement is challenged by a new opponent, his college arch-nemesis.

Johnson plays Robert Bettencourt of Pennsylvania, Malloy is Louis Laffer of Nevada and Mark Consuelos portrays the smooth-talking and promiscuous Senator Andy Guzman of Florida.

Written by "Doonesbury" cartoonist Trudeau, the series promises to mine current events from both the Republican and Democratic camps for comedy as the fictional senators gear up for election season.

"There's always going to be gaffes on both sides, and we're going to throw jabs on both sides," Johnson said.

"Right now, D.C. is just banana peels everywhere, people slipping over them, pies in faces everywhere in D.C., so we're not going to miss a trick," he added.

The futures of both "Alpha House" and "Betas" will be determined by Amazon executives and even the creators have been kept in the dark about how many viewers or what kind of ratings would equal success and justify a series renewal.

"It's nerve-wracking to not know, even to not have a sense of what realistic expectations could be," said London.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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